About 20 years ago when he was just a quiet 17-year-old kid, Manuel A. Hernandez Sanchez finished high school and left his alcoholic parents in Mexico to come to the United States.
He was poor, but he went to carpentry school for five years and worked his way up from $13 per hour to $34. He worked five or six days a week, starting at 5 a.m. and working until 5 p.m.
He made enough to buy a house, pay it off, sell it, buy a different house and again pay it off. He has two cars and no debt, his lawyer said.
“All my life I have been on my own,” Hernandez Sanchez wrote in a letter to the court from the Walworth County Jail. “My job is my whole life.”
He went to jail in March after a police sting operation caught him trying to meet who he thought were two 15-year-old girls.
“This, frankly, is the American Dream, and it’s just gone awry,” Judge Phillip Koss said at Hernandez Sanchez’s sentencing Tuesday.
Citing his absence of a criminal record and strong work history, Koss said he did not want to take up the state’s resources by having Hernandez Sanchez sit in prison before his almost certain deportation back to Mexico.
Koss sentenced him to five years of probation with one year in jail without work release. He has about six months of time-served credit already.
It appears likely that Immigration Customs and Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, will take him into custody before the supervision part of his sentence.
Hernandez Sanchez pleaded guilty to trafficking of a child. No child was involved in the incident, but under state statute he “did knowingly attempt to solicit a child for the purpose of a commercial sex act,” according to the criminal complaint.
Hernandez Sanchez, 38, of Trevor, was among a handful of Walworth County cases in which a police sting operation caught men responding to sexual ads posted online or through apps.
On March 15, police caught him at a prearranged location in Lake Geneva, where he said he was going to pay $40 to perform sex acts on who he thought were two 15-year-old girls, according to the complaint.
District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld asked Koss to send Hernandez Sanchez to prison because he is contributing to the market for human trafficking.
Based on the text messages, Hernandez Sanchez knew he was meeting children. He acted on his urges, Wiedenfeld said.
In court Tuesday, Hernandez Sanchez said life is precious and too short to do wrong. He apologized for the mistake he “foolishly committed.”
“I will do anything necessary to make things right,” he wrote in his letter. “I will do anything necessary to show that I am a good person, that I learned from my mistake.”
Defense attorney Michael Steinle said under a different presidential administration, Hernandez Sanchez might have a “fighting chance” of avoiding deportation. But given President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration, Steinle said he expects his client to be deported “as quickly as possible.”
Hernandez Sanchez, his lawyer said, “made a terrible mistake,” but his actions came from his being shy and not being able to meet people—not from an attraction to children. He has shown no pattern of problematic conduct toward women.
“He’s losing everything in this country,” Steinle said. “He’s lost a lot, judge.”
Steinle submitted five letters showing support for Hernandez Sanchez.
Friends said he helped them move during frigid January weather and gave them a place to stay until they could move into a new home.
Someone who looked up to him like an older brother wrote about Hernandez Sanchez showing up “day in and day out” to restore a home damaged by a flooding Fox River—all while maintaining his full-time job.
An official from R&D Thiel, a carpenter contractor group based in Belvidere, Illinois, praised the man who has worked there since December 2010.
“His work performance, attendance and ability to produce quality work is outstanding, and he is considered a valuable asset to our field operation,” the letter states. “As soon as Manuel is available to work, we will convert his inactive status to active and immediately re-employ him.”
In his letter to the court, Hernandez Sanchez wrote that after his arrest, his company offered to help him get a work permit, which would allow him to stay in the country. But that could happen only if he wasn’t convicted of a felony.
All Hernandez Sanchez had in the U.S. was work and a few family members and friends, he wrote.
“This is my life, the life that I have builded in 20 years,” he wrote. “I have nothing in Mexico to live for, everything I have is here.”